2008 code change may have shielded homes in fire’s path

Merced Sun-Star - - Front Page - BY DALE KASLER AND PHILLIP REESE [email protected]

The sky was turn­ing orange and the em­bers were fly­ing from the Camp Fire when Oney and Donna Car­rell and Donna’s fa­ther sped away from their Par­adise home.

“I thought, ‘Oh, well, the house is done,’” Oney Car­rell said.

A few days later, they learned other­wise. The Car­rells’ home sur­vived the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory with a cou­ple of warped win­dow frames, a par­tially charred down spout and a stub­born smoky smell in­side.

Most of their neigh­bor­hood was de­stroyed. A guest house in their back­yard, where Donna’s fa­ther lived, was re­duced to ashes, along with a cou­ple of sheds. Yet their beau­ti­fully re­stored 1940 Stude­baker sat un­touched in the garage.

The arc of de­struc­tion the Camp Fire carved through Par­adise was seem­ingly ran­dom: Why were some houses saved and oth­ers in­cin­er­ated? As mil­lions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans brace for an­other wild­fire sea­son, a McClatchy anal­y­sis of fire and prop­erty records shows the an­swer might be found in some­thing as sim­ple as the roofs over their heads — and the year their house was built.

A land­mark 2008 build­ing code de­signed for Cal­i­for­nia’s fire-prone re­gions — re­quir­ing fire-re­sis­tant roofs, sid­ing and other safe­guards — ap­pears to have pro­tected the Car­rells’ home and dozens of oth­ers like it from the Camp Fire. That year marks a piv­otal mo­ment in the state’s deadly and ex­pen­sive his­tory of de­struc­tive nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

All told, about 51 per­cent of the 350 sin­gle-fam­ily homes built af­ter 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were un­dam­aged, ac­cord­ing to McClatchy’s anal­y­sis of Cal Fire data and Butte County prop­erty records. By con­trast, only 18 per­cent of the 12,100 homes built prior to 2008 es­caped dam­age. Those fig­ures don’t in­clude mo­bile homes, which burned in nearly equal mea­sure re­gard­less of age.

“Th­ese are great stan­dards; they work,” said se­nior en­gi­neer Robert Raymer of the Cal­i­for­nia Build­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, who con­sulted with state of­fi­cials on the build­ing code.

Yet de­spite this les­son, Cal­i­for­nia may end up fall­ing short in its ef­fort to pro­tect homes from the next wild­fire.

Mush­room­ing cities such as Folsom, where an 11,000-home de­vel­op­ment is spring­ing up, have the abil­ity to by­pass the state’s safety stan­dards in spite of con­sid­er­able fire risks. The state, which of­fers cash in­cen­tives to bol­ster old homes against earthquakes, so far has done noth­ing to get Cal­i­for­ni­ans to retro­fit homes built be­fore 2008 for fire safety.

Ac­cord­ing to Cal Fire, as many as 3 mil­lion homes lie within the var­i­ous “fire hazard sever­ity zones” around the state. Dave Sap­sis, a Cal Fire

wild­land fire sci­en­tist, said there’s no way to know defini­tively how many of those homes were built be­fore 2008, but he be­lieves “it’s the pre­pon­der­ance of them, the ma­jor­ity.”

It hasn’t helped that hous­ing con­struc­tion went into a deep dive in 2008 and has been slow to re­cover. Raymer said only 860,000 homes and apart­ments have been built statewide since the code went into ef­fect. That’s just 6 per­cent of the state’s hous­ing stock.

The sit­u­a­tion is worse in ru­ral Cal­i­for­nia, where hous­ing con­struc­tion lags but the fire haz­ards are among the worst in the state, Raymer said. Fewer than 3 per­cent of the homes in the path of the Camp Fire were built af­ter 2008.

“Most of our in­ven­tory that was here prior to the fire was (built) be­tween the ’40s and the ’70s,” said Par­adise Town Coun­cil­man Michael Zuc­co­l­illo, a real es­tate agent. “The av­er­age home here was from the ’70s.”

That leaves thou­sands of homes at risk from the next in­ferno across Cal­i­for­nia, their wood-shake shin­gles wait­ing to ig­nite.

“What are we go­ing to do about the ex­ist­ing hous­ing stock that’s been built in th­ese places?” said Max Moritz, a wild­fire spe­cial­ist at UC Santa Bar­bara. “For the ex­ist­ing hous­ing stock that’s out there, that isn’t built to th­ese codes, we have a mas­sive retrofitting is­sue on our hands. They have struc­ture ig­ni­tion vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that are built into the sit­u­a­tion, they’re baked into the prob­lem.”


The Car­rells, now liv­ing in a rental in Ro­seville, de­signed their Par­adise home and did much of the in­te­rior work them­selves; they knew that home was built with fire safety in mind.

“I knew we were in the mid­dle of the for­est,” Oney Car­rell said dur­ing a re­cent visit to Par­adise. “Why wouldn’t you do ev­ery­thing you could to make it last?”

But even he’s amazed that their home made it. Step­ping over a black­ened pa­tio drain just a few feet from the back of the house, he won­dered aloud: “I don’t know why it stopped here.”

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to say for cer­tain why some homes are still stand­ing in Par­adise, while oth­ers were ru­ined. Land­scap­ing surely played a role; fire ex­perts say homes buffered by so-called “de­fen­si­ble space” prob­a­bly did bet­ter than those wrapped in shrubs. Luck was a big fac­tor, too, as homes were no doubt spared by last­sec­ond shifts in the winds.

Nev­er­the­less, ex­perts say, McClatchy’s anal­y­sis re­in­forces their be­lief that Cal­i­for­nia’s fire-safe build­ing code can make a dif­fer­ence in an era of in­creas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Daniel Gorham, a for­mer fire­fighter and U.S. For­est Ser­vice re­searcher who works for the In­surance In­sti­tute for Busi­ness & Home Safety in South Carolina, said the Cal­i­for­nia code is be­com­ing a model for other fire-prone states.

“Cal­i­for­nia is leaps and bounds ahead of other parts of the coun­try,” Gorham said. “Cal­i­for­nia is on the fore­front.”

Ad­vo­cates say fir­ere­sis­tant build­ing ma­te­ri­als aren’t par­tic­u­larly ex­pen­sive. A study last fall by Head­wa­ter Eco­nom­ics, a con­sult­ing firm in Boze­man, Mont., found that “a new home built to wild­fire-re­sis­tant codes can be con­structed for roughly the same cost as a typ­i­cal home.”

But get­ting Cal­i­for­ni­ans to retro­fit homes built be­fore 2008 is an enor­mous task. The state re­quires prop­erty own­ers in fire zones who re­place at least half their roof to in­stall “fire-re­tar­dant” ma­te­ri­als on the en­tire roof. Other than that, how­ever, there’s noth­ing forc­ing Cal­i­for­ni­ans to safe­guard their ex­ist­ing homes against fire haz­ards.

A few Cal­i­for­nia cities have taken mat­ters into their own hands. In 2008, the City Coun­cil in Big Bear Lake, a com­mu­nity of 5,200 in San Bernardino County, passed an or­di­nance declar­ing wood shake shin­gle roofs “a se­vere fire hazard and dan­ger” and or­dered home­own­ers to re­place them by 2012. Armed with state and fed­eral grants, it of­fered cash in­cen­tives of up to $4,500 apiece for new roofs.

Al­though the grant pro­gram has run out, “I can’t think of the last time I saw a shake roof in Big Bear,” said Pa­trick John­ston, the city’s chief build­ing of­fi­cial.

Most Cal­i­for­ni­ans, how­ever, are on their own when it comes to spend­ing the tens of thou­sands of dol­lars needed to re­place a roof or in­stall fire-re­sis­tant sid­ing. The state of­fers no fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives for fire safety the way it does, say, for earthquakes — home­own­ers in quake zones can get up to

$3,000 apiece from the state to gird their homes against seis­mic dis­as­ter.

There are signs, how­ever, that the state is be­gin­ning to get more se­ri­ous about retrofitting homes for fire safety.

A law signed last year by for­mer Gov. Jerry Brown re­quires the state fire mar­shal to de­velop a sug­gested list of “low-cost retrofits” by Jan­uary

2020. The state would then pro­mote th­ese retrofits in its ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach ef­forts.

Cal­i­for­nia also might start throw­ing cash at the prob­lem.

A new bill, AB 38, in­tro­duced ear­lier this year by Demo­cratic As­sem­bly­man Jim Wood of Santa Rosa, would cre­ate a $1 bil­lion “fire hard­ened homes re­volv­ing loan fund” to help home­own­ers retro­fit their prop­er­ties.

The is­sue is per­sonal for Wood, a den­tist who spent weeks help­ing iden­tify vic­tims from the Camp Fire and the wine coun­try fires of Oc­to­ber 2017. Al­though el­i­gi­bil­ity terms haven’t been spelled out, the bill would of­fer low­in­ter­est and no-in­ter­est loans to help those who other­wise couldn’t pay for new roofs or other safe­guards.

“A lot of th­ese small towns are not as well off fi­nan­cially,” he said. “We need to find a way to help them, es­pe­cially if they’re poorer.”

The fund might not be nearly enough to go around — not with hun­dreds of thou­sands of homes in need of retrofits, and a new roof alone cost­ing $10,000 or more. “The $1 bil­lion, in­deed, that’s not enough to rehab ev­ery home,” said the Build­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion’s Raymer. But he said it’s “an ab­so­lutely ex­cel­lent way to kick things off.”

Wood said state of­fi­cials would have to fig­ure out a plan for parcel­ing out the money to where it’s needed most — prob­a­bly start­ing with lower-in­come ar­eas near forests.

“Ob­vi­ously we want to af­fect the ar­eas with the high­est risk first,” the as­sem­bly­man said.


The fire-safe build­ing code had its ori­gins in two sig­nif­i­cant fires from a gen­er­a­tion ago — the Panorama Fire of 1980, which spilled out of the moun­tains into the city of San Bernardino; and the mon­strous Oak­land Hills Fire of 1991, which wiped out 2,500 homes and killed 25 peo­ple.

In re­sponse, the Leg­is­la­ture or­dered the De­part­ment of Fire Pro­tec­tion and Forestry to start map­ping ma­jor fire risks in Cal­i­for­nia, in the hin­ter­lands as well as ur­ban ar­eas. The re­sult was a col­lec­tion of maps of the state’s “fire hazard sever­ity zones,” en­com­pass­ing more than one-third of Cal­i­for­nia’s land mass.

Based on fac­tors such as ter­rain, veg­e­ta­tion and weather pat­terns, the zones rep­re­sent Cal Fire’s at­tempt to pre­dict the prob­a­bil­ity of a fire start­ing and the like­li­hood that it could be­come sig­nif­i­cant, said Cal Fire’s Sap­sis.

The maps spawned tighter build­ing stan­dards. The Leg­is­la­ture man­dated fire-re­sis­tant roofs in th­ese fire-prone ar­eas. Then, in 2008, the state laid out a more com­pre­hen­sive scheme. The Cal­i­for­nia Build­ing Stan­dards Com­mis­sion rolled out a suite of reg­u­la­tions, known as Chap­ter 7A, that set strict rules for roof­ing ma­te­ri­als, sid­ing, win­dows, decks and other el­e­ments of a home built in 2008 or later — right down to the min­i­mum specs for the wire mesh that must be in­stalled on at­tic vents to keep em­bers out (no more than a quar­ter-inch of space be­tween the wires).

Ex­perts said the reg­u­la­tions seem to be par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive at pro­tect­ing struc­tures from the types of wild­fires that are in­creas­ingly com­mon in Cal­i­for­nia, where wind gusts can blow em­bers a mile or two ahead of the main wall of flames and do some of the worst dam­age.

“A win­dow breaks, a vent breaks, the fire gets into your home and you’ve got an in­te­rior struc­ture fire,” said Joe Poire, the city of Santa Bar­bara’s fire mar­shal.

En­force­ment of the build­ing code car­ries a few wrin­kles. In the mainly ru­ral ar­eas where Cal Fire is in charge of fire pro­tec­tion, the Chap­ter 7A code is au­to­mat­i­cally en­forced in any re­gion that Cal Fire has des­ig­nated as a “sever­ity zone” — mod­er­ate, high or very high.

In ur­ban ar­eas that have their own fire de­part­ments, the code is gen­er­ally used only in spots where Cal Fire says the threat is very high. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments have the dis­cre­tion of re­ject­ing the Cal Fire des­ig­na­tion, and Sap­sis said some city coun­cils have been squea­mish about the state’s maps be­cause of fears that the Chap­ter 7A code will in­flate con­struc­tion costs, or for other rea­sons.

Yet in­ter­views with lo­cal of­fi­cials through­out Cal­i­for­nia by McClatchy in­di­cate that the vast ma­jor­ity of cities and towns go along with Cal Fire’s rec­om­men­da­tions. Santa Bar­bara city of­fi­cials ex­tended the build­ing code to coastal ar­eas that had been over­looked by Cal Fire’s map­pers.

The map omits small por­tions of Par­adise, but the build­ing code is en­forced across the en­tire town, said Par­adise pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer Co­lette Cur­tis.


Nev­er­the­less, there are places where lo­cal of­fi­cials are re­luc­tant to im­pose strict build­ing codes — even where fire has caused catas­tro­phe.

Be­fore Par­adise ex­ploded, Santa Rosa’s Cof­fey Park was the poster child for re­cent Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire dis­as­ters: Five peo­ple died and 1,321 homes were de­stroyed by the Tubbs Fire in Oc­to­ber 2017.

Cof­fey Park wasn’t sub­ject to Cal­i­for­nia’s Chap­ter 7A build­ing code. It still isn’t.

Un­like some ar­eas of Santa Rosa, the neigh­bor­hood hasn’t been des­ig­nated a “very high fire hazard” zone by Cal Fire. City of­fi­cials are OK with that. Al­though devel­op­ers re­build­ing Cof­fey Park are be­ing urged to con­sider fire-re­sis­tant ma­te­ri­als, city spokes­woman

Adri­ane Mertens said the city doesn’t see any rea­son to im­pose the 7A code in the neigh­bor­hood.

“There were very, very high winds that night,” Mertens said. “There were em­bers that were blown across the (High­way 101) free­way, across six lanes of free­way, into Cof­fey Park.”

Jack Co­hen, a fire sci­en­tist in Mon­tana who helped de­velop the 7A code, said he thinks Santa Rosa is com­mit­ting “an er­ror in judg­ment” by re­build­ing with­out the safe­guards.

In any event, Cal Fire is up­dat­ing its fire hazard maps over the next year or so, tak­ing into ac­count more so­phis­ti­cated data on wind and other cli­mate fac­tors, and Sap­sis said spots such as Cof­fey Park could wind up des­ig­nated as high-risk ar­eas. Once the maps are done, any re­gion placed in­side Cal Fire’s “very high fire” zone will have no choice but to com­ply, un­der a bill signed into law by Brown last year.

But there will still be ways for cities to skirt the state build­ing code.

Look at Folsom, widely con­sid­ered one of the most vul­ner­a­ble places in greater Sacra­mento to fire. The county’s hazard mit­i­ga­tion plan says


Dawn Herr

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

Oney and Donna Car­rell stand near the ashes of her fa­ther’s house in Par­adise in March. Their prop­erty had two homes on it be­fore the fire, but the only one to sur­vive, vis­i­ble be­hind them, was built to fire-re­sis­tant stan­dards that went into ef­fect in 2008.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

An aerial im­age shows the home of Sean and Dawn Herr, bot­tom cen­ter, in Par­adise in March. The Herr home, built in 2010 to new fire-re­sis­tant build­ing stan­dards, sur­vived the fire while nearby homes burned.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

Dawn Herr and her son, Liam, 8, visit their home in Par­adise that sur­vived the Camp Fire in March.

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